I’m visiting my brother, Flatty, for the Fourth of July, but you know me. I just can’t sit still for a whole weekend! So, while he slept in, I headed south into Utah County to visit a perennial favorite National Park site: Timpanogos Cave National Monument!
The hike to Timpanogos Cave is one of the more famous, or infamous, in this county! It is steep, it is winding, and it is very exposed. Oh, and it also comes with risks of being hit in the head by falling rocks! Can’t stop too long in the red and yellow striped zones! Well, here we go!
Timpanogos Cave is located in American Fork Canyon, which is really neat on a geological level! Right now, I’m hiking through seven layers of dolomite, sandstone, and limestone (which you need for a cave like this to form)! On the other side of the canyon, though, the rock is mostly Mutual Formation Quartzite! That’s because a river carved right through the upended layers of a massive tectonic uplift! It’s like turning a slice of layered cake on an angle, cutting it down the middle, then eating straight downward!
Anyway, I digress. It’s easy to do when you’re on a steep climb. The hike is only a mile long, but it comes with such spectacular views around each curve that you can’t help but pause and take it in. There are plenty of benches along the way so you can sit and get your fill of them! Luckily, the visitor center gives hikers a full hour and a half to make the trek!
Up, up, and up I climbed. This mountain is very tall (11,750 ft), and if you look at it from far enough away, it looks like a sleeping lady! According to Timpanogots legend (one of many versions), this is the form of Utahna, who sacrificed herself to the gods in order to end a drought. Her lover, Red Eagle, tried to stop her sacrifice by pretending to be a god himself, but when he was injured by a bear, Utahna knew the truth and jumped off a cliff! Today, she lies on top of the second highest mountain in the Wasatch Range, while the conjoined heart of the two lovers still hangs deep inside!
At last, I made it to the cave entrance, half an hour ahead of schedule, which meant I had time to relax and learn from the science fair-style display on cave formations. Earlier I mentioned that you need limestone to make caves like this. That’s because limestone dissolves when exposed to a mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen (carbonic acid). The carbonic acid picks up calcium carbonate as it flows through the rock, then solidifies as it touches open air again. This happens veeeery slowly, over thousands of years, but this display showed me how I could make my own formations in my kitchen!
At last, Ranger Nick gathered everyone at the entrance. Even though my time slot hadn’t come up yet, the group ahead of me was small enough that they let me join. We all stepped into the antechamber for introductions, and Ranger Nick told us that sometimes spooky things happen on cave tours, strange shadows and whispers and moans. No sooner had he said that then he smashed his finger in the solid metal door sealing the cave, taking his fingernail right off! Noooooo!
Lots of folks on the tour were well prepared with first aid kids, and Ranger Nick handled it much better than I would have. In fact, after wrapping up his finger, he continued his talk about the cave, giving us the story of logger, Martin Hansen, who first discovered this cave in 1887 while following cougar tracks in the snow. When Ranger Nick asked what we would have done if we had found cougar tracks leading into a cave, one of the other folks on the tour said, “Get her number!”
That gave everyone a laugh, but as we went further into Hansen Cave, things started to get spooky! Normally, there are carefully placed lights all along the walkway, highlighting the neat formations. Midway through Middle Cave, the next one after Hansen Cave, those lights went out! There was no breaker to reset, so we were left in complete darkness long before it was supposed to be a part of the tour! Luckily, Ranger Nick had a flashlight, and we had to finish the tour completely by thin beam!
We passed from Middle Cave into Timpanogos Cave, sealed by a huge steel door to keep the moisture from escaping and killing the helictites. These spindly formations curl all along the ceiling here, and in fact, Timpanogos Cave has the greatest concentration of helictites in the whole US! They were spectacular, though they just couldn’t compare to the highlight of the tour: the Great Heart of Timpanogos!
According to legend, this massive, two-ton stalactite is made up of the two merged hearts of Red Eagle and Utahan! When the lights are working, the park likes to give it a little red gleam! I was glad that we got to see its natural colors, though.
We passed through the room of animals, where a poor, stony camel has had its leg bitten off by a rock-odile, and then I met another, more lively, animal named Juggernaut T. Moose, who has been traveling around the world too! Be sure to follow Juggernaut on Instagram!
We emerged into the sunlight once again, safe from further spooky happenings! No matter how many times a tour can run through the same cave, there’s always something new and different waiting to happen! Now, I’m going to head back downhill for some holiday festivities. I sure do hope that Ranger Nick’s finger feels better soon!